By Lisa Woolfson
One of my gifts for my bat mitzvah was an ornate pink jewelry box decorated with Jewish symbols. I opened the box to reveal my first and only Jewish star necklace, a red star hanging on a delicate silver chain. I thought it was beautiful, but only wore it a few times before college, usually only when it was a Jewish holiday. The necklace spent most of its time sitting untouched in my jewelry box.
I grew up in a very Jewish town in northern New Jersey, where my religion didn’t make me different from most people I knew. I went to Hebrew school, had a bat mitzvah and worked at my Hebrew school until I went to college. But we only went to temple a few times a year, and I didn’t do BBYO or Birthright or anything like that. Other than being proud to be Jewish, I didn’t think that much about it.
That all changed when I got to college. University of Maryland is a huge school, 20 percent Jewish, with a big Hillel, and I thought it would be fun to try and embrace that part of my heritage. Part of college is figuring out your identity instead of what your parents want it to be. Spending Shabbat with people my age made me feel really more connected to Judaism than I ever had before. In my junior year, I joined the Reform board at Hillel.
After that, I spent at least one day a week either at a Reform Shabbat service or a Reform social event. I felt like I really belonged in the Jewish community.
As I felt more and more connected to my faith, I took that Jewish star necklace out of my jewelry box and started wearing it proudly every day.
But as I was starting to embrace my religion, America was becoming less accepting of it. The weekend of the Squirrel Hill shooting in 2018 was horrifying. There was a vigil on campus for the victims and as we all gathered in the middle of campus, I never felt so connected to my religion or so scared to be a part of it.
I hoped that the Tree of Life shooting was an isolated incident, but things kept getting worse. Neo-Nazi type men walked threateningly near my temple in my hometown. Nothing happened, but the fear was enough. Recently, President Trump signed an executive order that a White House official said made Judaism its own nationality (even though that’s not totally true), as if we didn’t already feel singled out enough.
This past Chanukah, a giant menorah just a few towns over from my hometown was destroyed. My favorite holiday was tinged with fear as I read headlines nearly every day of Chanukah about men in Brooklyn being attacked for their religion. They were all singled out because what they wore revealed their Judaism.
So after Chanukah, I decided to stop wearing my Jewish star necklace. I did not want to be harassed or attacked for who I was. Especially when I’m lucky enough to be part of a “passing” marginalized group — one that is not easily recognizable by appearance.
I know that the chances of me getting attacked at University of Maryland are slim. But I go to Washington, D.C., a lot and I go to New York City a lot when I’m at home. After everything that’s happened recently, I just don’t think it’s worth the risk.
I’m sad that I don’t feel safe wearing my Jewish star necklace anymore, in a country that was created for religious freedom. It’s unfair that as soon as I got really passionate about my religion, it became less safe to be a part of it. But not wearing the necklace doesn’t make me any less Jewish. I still have my same position at Hillel. I still write these kinds of articles. All I’m doing is keeping myself safe. And, hopefully, one day I can take my necklace out of its pink box again.
Lisa Woolfson is a senior journalism and government major at the University of Maryland College Park. She is a board member of the Reform community Ruach at U-Md. Hillel.